Government neglect of biosecurity

27 February, 2012

Australian farmers produce some of the highest quality and safest food in the world. Agricultural production in this country drives $155 billion a year in economic production, over 12 per cent of GDP, generating around 1.6 million Australian jobs and $32 billion a year in farm exports.

Around the world, Australian-produced food is regarded as safe-clean and green-and it is essential that we maintain that reputation. However, this reputation is put at risk by Labor’s incompetent neglect of our national biosecurity.

There is no doubt that the clean, disease-free status of Australian food produce is paramount. Australia was once a biosecurity island fortress, but in recent years our biosecurity and quarantine programs have been cut back and undermined by this government.

The government’s commitment to biosecurity is a national disgrace. Labor’s 2009 federal budget slashed $35.8 million from the quarantine and biosecurity budgets, leading to the loss of 125 jobs, and reduced inspections of arriving passengers and cargo.

The sum of $58 million was also slashed from the Customs budget, leading to 4.7 million fewer air cargo consignments being inspected each year and 2,150 fewer vessels being boarded on arrival.

This neglect set the trend that Labor has continued into the current budget. In 2011, another $32.8 million was cut from the operational budget of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, reducing the capacity of the department to deliver services to Australian agriculture.

The Beale quarantine and biosecurity review that was commissioned by Labor called for hundreds of millions to be spent on AQIS and quarantine annually to provide proper, real protection to our nation’s borders. Instead of heeding this report, the government has failed to act, except to spend 2½ years since its release running AQIS down and stripping out its assets.

Many countries around the world provide advantages for their industries that include low input and labour costs and low levels of necessary compliance with government regulations. This government is complicit in providing this advantage to overseas producers by refusing to enforce adequate border biosecurity.

Carbendazim is a fungicide registered in Australia for the control of a wide range of fungal diseases such as mould, black spot, mildew, scorch, rot and blight in a variety of crops. It has been known to cause birth defects and irreversible male infertility in laboratory animals.

New research has found exposure to high levels of the chemical causes infertility in some male mice, prompting the APVMA to both restrict its use and extend the health warnings on labels. In January 2010 carbendazim was banned from pre- and post-harvest uses on grapes, cucurbits, citrus fruit including oranges, custard apples, mangoes, all pome fruit, stone fruit and all uses on turf.

This chemical has become an issue in Australia after reports from the United States that authorities had suspended some imports after trace amounts of carbendazim had been found in orange juice imported from Brazil. Whilst the levels detected were low in comparison to international standards, there remains the fact that other countries can still use a product banned for a similar use in Australia.

It is also a fact that the Labor government’s neglect of biosecurity means that there is an increased chance that the product is entering Australia in imported fruit products. This not only creates an unlevel playing field; it also raises questions about the safety of some imported agricultural products.

The motion by the member for Barker requires the House to note that:

(a) Australia currently permits the import of orange juice concentrate from Brazil;

(b) the United States has moved to ban imports of Brazilian orange juice concentrate due to traces of the fungicide Carbendazim being found in some juice concentrates from Brazil;

(c) in January 2010, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) suspended some agricultural production uses of Carbendazim, including use on all citrus fruits;

(d) in 2011 the APVMA completed its preliminary review finding of Carbendazim which has proposed removing many uses of this chemical; and

(e) the APVMA has proposed a change to remove the Maximum Residue Limits in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code that permits …

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